Lennie Whiting

Suffolk Stepdancer & Singer

A tribute by friend and musician Stephen Matthews

Lennie dancing with Stephen playing

Lennie Whiting who passed away in March of this year was the last of the traditional stepdancers and singers still performing in the region. Born in 1942 in Bedingfield, he lived locally all his life. Horham, Brundish and finally Stradbroke, villages all within a stones throw of each other.

His paternal grandfather James ‘Dimmer’ Whiting was a stepdancer and taught Lennie to dance whilst still a young boy. His first go at stepping publicly was in Stradbroke Ivy House, run by landlord Fred Lefty who also played accordian and stepped. In those days it was a very musical pub, with plenty of singers and melodeon players, including Cyril Barber, Bruce Wright and Charlie Whiting.  After he finished dancing, Fred gave him some advice, which Lennie never ceased to pass onto others.

‘Use your left foot, you’re a one legged stepdancer’!

Fred lefty’s advice to lennie

Lennie also sang, in fact he was a very good, but self deprecating singer of the old songs, feeling his voice wasn’t good enough. He learnt many from his father Samuel. Farmer from Cheshire, The Outlandish Knight, Black Velvet Band, Oak and the Ash and, his favourite, Just Break the news to Mother. He always regretted he didn’t learn more from his father, who had a good store of the old songs.

When growing up Lennie was lucky to be surrounded by many good local pubs where the music was still performed, Framlingham Hare and Hounds, Worlingworth Swan, Brundish Crown and Dennington Bell. He regularly danced to the playing of Dolly Curtis,  Font Whatling and Brian Felgate. Some of his family were also accomplished performers, his cousin Russell was a great stepdancer, uncle Charlie from Southolt a singer and dancer, and though a distant relation, the renowned singer and fiddle player Fred Whiting.

Font Whatling, Lennie & Billy Heffer
Stepdance Day 2009 with Dusty Smith, Brian Whatling and Lennie
Lennie with cousin Russell

Lennie loved horses. His father was a horseman and often on his way home from school he would watch his father ploughing with a team of Suffolks, sometimes riding on the Plough itself for a furrow or two. Sometimes Samuel would drive a pony and trap to Debenham where the men would meet on the bridge to have a few deals, afterwards heading to the Red Lion for a pint. Many a time Lennie would be left sitting outside with a Vimto and a packet of crisps until closing time, often having to drive the pony home as his father had had one too many.

Lennie went to all the local horse fairs with his father, who also bred greyhounds. Often Lennie would be thrown onto the back of a young horse and would ride it bare back for sixpence, flashing it up in front of the dealer men. “You hung on for dear life, cos you wanted that tanner”, he would remember later. One time he rode a pony bareback into Dennington Bell, going straight up to the bar where the landlord bought a pint for the pony. When his father died he left Lennie two ponies , Surprise and Sandy. He sold Surprise soon after but drove Sandy for many years. In the 1980’s Tony Harvey organised the 100 turnout drive at Bruisyard, and Lennie was there driving his dartmoor pony Jenny.

He had a special love for the Suffolk horse and was lucky enough to work them for a while when his father was horseman. He always said he had done everything with a working horse except plough. In a conversation with Lennie around 2005 he said “thas one thing I have never done, but would love to do it”. A few years later his wish was fulfilled when he ploughed with a pair at a local ploughing match.

Lennie with Stephen

Lennie started stepdancing again regularly in 2003 when, fed up with the lack of good pubs to play in,  I started to organise old music nights at Brome village hall. Soon we had an unrivalled collection of singers,  musicians and stepdancers and for the next ten years or so played in many local pubs and village halls. Some of us even went to London to appear at a dance special at Cecil Sharp House. We had to wait 3 hours before our slot on stage, so Lennie, Percy West, Chris Holderness and I went on a pub crawl in Camden. How we ever got on stage I’ll never know, but Percy and Lennie danced like demons and went down a storm. Around this time Lennie also started to appear regularly with John and Katie Howson’s Old Hat Concert Party, and again was involved with many local appearances. We even went to London again, this time at the Keith Summers Festival, though I think we all behaved ourselves slightly better on this occasion.

He always attended the EATMT Music days in Stowmarket and the Stepdance competition, which for many years was held at the last of the great traditional pubs, The Swan at Worlingworth, where he won the Font Whatling Trophy, wearing his lucky shoes, bought for him by his devoted wife Brenda. Lennie mentored numerous up and coming young stepdancers, including Jessica and Amy Chilvers, and Dom Smith, though only Dom still steps regularly now.

Lennie appeared on tv in BBC TV’s Antiques Roadtrip, teaching one of the antique experts to step in Laxfield Royal Oak. He was featured in a dvd produced by Oral Traditions, was in the EATMT virtual stepdance day film of 2020 and recorded for a Trust podcast talking about stepdancing traditions in Suffolk.

In more recent years, though his knees were starting to be an issue, he was always happy to give a step, and the very last time was in the Swan last October.

He will be remembered not only for his stepdancing, but for his unparalleled enthusiasm for the music, his encouragement and support of the many, many traditional music events he attended. He was a true born and breed Suffolk man, and a gentleman.

June 2023, Stephen Matthews